"Repent and Return to the Lord Kind of Thoughts"-Sermon for Lent 1, Mark 1:9-15
By the Rev. Demery Bader-Saye:
So there’s a memory which has morphed into something of a recurring daydream for about, oh, almost a year now. It surfaces especially when people ask how I’m doing with all that has unfolded this year on the global and national scenes and with the loss of my sweet Mama and my beloved father-in-law. That image is of our sweet Boxer Bull-Mastiff, Chloe, whom we also lost this year. Chloe was the sweetest dog ever, with people. With other dogs, she was a bit of a bully, really. Never mean, never vicious or dangerous. But dominant to be sure. A dear friend once brought her new German Shepherd puppy, Serena, over to meet Chloe. Chloe was delighted to have a friend over, but the thing was, she wouldn’t let Serena stand up. Every time Serena tried, Chloe reached over and put her big ol’ Boxer Bull-Mastiff paw on the puppy’s head and pushed her all the way down to the floor. Serena, who was ready, willing and able - eager, even - to play the sweet sidekick to Chloe’s powerful Alpha-Girl, spent the whole of the [growing shorter by the minute] playdate with her little Bambi legs splayed on the floor. Body still & waiting. Peaceful, even, as peaceful as her name. Her big brown eyes watching Chloe for the high sign, waiting for the paw to be lifted, for the message that it would be okay to get up and have some fun now that the roles were established. Alas, that sign never came and the friendship, at least the canine component of it, was short-lived.
Darned if life - whose name this time around was Winter Storm Uri - didn’t just put its big old paw on all of our heads this week. Again. This time putting a deep freeze on the whole great state of Texas and millions of others in his path. As ice and sleet pummeled rooftops and trees, roadways and driveways, as power flickered off for hundreds of thousands of people, Serena and that paw on the head image surfaced again. When inside temperatures dipped dangerously and water slowed to a trickle, and for many finally ceased to flow, it was there. This week it was crystalclear, pun intended, that there was no other response to this storm than submission. To wait, heads down, eyes on our darkened lamps, dripping faucets, plunging thermostats, rotting food, waiting for it all to be over.
In the stillness there is time to think. Lenten thoughts. Repent and Return to the Lord kind of thoughts. Time to ask holy questions. Is submission anything like repentance? Who exactly has a paw on our heads and why? And, in short, this beautiful, holy question I heard from a friend a few days back, Can God be trusted?
Thank goodness our scriptures gift us a cast of colorful characters to walk with us as we confront these hard truths and difficult questions. We’ve got a wrung-out Noah and his menagerie, kissing the wet sand at the end of the ark’s newly extended off-ramp, a land washed and drip-dried for forty weeks by the wrath of God. Old Noah, half crazed by now, his mouth agape at God’s colorful weapon laid down in the heavens, God’s bow, an offering of peace, of regret, even? A gesture signifying a new Covenant, one based on patience and holy re-creation in response to human failing, rather than destruction met with more destruction. A sign that would mark a fresh start between God and God’s people and become a template for the unfolding story of salvation. In short, a promise that the paw on the head would never again belong to God.
There’s also Jesus, still dripping wet from his baptism. At the urging of the dove he is headed toward the barren desert and away from the basic comforts of daily, civilized living. And there is the temptor, whose presence is only implied in today’s verses by gospel writer Mark. A temptor who is seemingly Jesus’ only companion for forty long days and forty long nights.
I must confess that this week, for the first time ever, the thought of preaching on the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert irked me. Maybe it was survivor’s guilt; our family was only without power for 12 hours. Maybe it was the full knowledge that my friends, colleagues and neighbors across the state were plunged into darkness, cold, hunger & thirst…. But when I recalled the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness - at least Matthew & Luke’s chattier versions with all the details of Jesus being “tempted” to eat and “tempted” to drink - I recoiled. How could anyone describe a desire to eat, to drink and be warm, to have agency and power to do good things in the world -- as a temptation? No. The drive to nourish ourselves is not the definition of temptation. It is human instinct, surely. A natural drive, placed here, if we are to believe the story of Creation, by the very one who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs.
So why? Why does Jesus allow that beautiful, insistent Dove to usher him into the wilderness? Why does he, the well-pleasing, beloved son of God, seek out a paw on the head moment and voluntarily sign up for nearly six weeks of living in a way that is not a far cry from what much of Texas just endured, and some are still enduring?
Maybe he does it because there’s something okay, holy even, about giving up the struggle for a time. About acknowledging human frailty and powerlessness in the face of the unspeakable, awe-inspiring, fearful forces of this Earth. Forces like biology - the unstoppable need for food and water, of course - but also the power of diseased cells to multiply and spread, as with COVID or Cancer or ALS. And how about Death and her companion, Grief, in their many forms - one who transports us graveside and leaves us there, weeping with the other. Or weather events: ice, sleet, even deceptively fluffy snow - any one of which can, in mere minutes, paralyze even the most powerful and efficient vehicles: 14 wheeler HEB trucks full of food, and iconic Texas pick-up trucks that ford streams and carry meat back from the hunt. Not to mention minivans full of parents and kids who conquer the world every day at work and at school. Oh, wow, but these forces are eons more powerful, even, than all of us put together. They are much more wiley than the lie of omission we tell ourselves when we spend our days acting as if we can have it all, do it all, be it all. Whether we let ourselves see them or not, these forces are a reality. They are life.
How would our lives change if we surrendered to them instead of railing against them? What would the outcome be if we quested, even, for the serenity that some have found in acknowledging their breadth, the depth, and height. What if, for people of faith, the act of submission could be a form of repentance? Whether we elect to stand down, as Jesus did, - or it comes to pass that the natural FORCES of life on this planet force us into a time of submission - either way, truth is truth and we are powerless. We are dust and to dust we shall return.
In a week like the one we’ve traversed, in a year like the one we’ve endured there is a unique opportunity - the kind only really possible in the face of genuine adversity. It is the opportunity to surrender, to repent - which simply means to turn around - and to return to the embrace of our Creator God. Not because the paw on our heads belongs to God; Noah, still walking with us, points to the bow in the sky to remind us it does not. To surrender, repent and return is to acknowledge that the only thing bigger than the forces that flatten us time and again throughout our lives is God. God’s power, God’s love, God’s vision, God’s hope. God’s delight in us. It’s a lesson we’re assigned to learn from the earliest of days: I am weak, but he is strong. In our weakness we can glory, says Paul in his beautiful letter to the Ephesians - we can glory in the One whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
When we take a moment to really look at Mark’s story of temptation, as scanty as his account is - and honestly its gift is in its precision - we can imagine Jesus’ act of submission more fully. Because Mark chooses to describe Jesus’ baptism and temptation all in the same breath.
Preaching professor Karoline Lewis writes, [In the gospel of Mark] “Jesus’ baptism totally matters for Jesus’ temptation. God rips apart the heavens. The Spirit descends. The Spirit enters into Jesus. [Just before he enters the wilderness.] Therein lies our promise… It’s that now [for the baptized] all battles with evil, struggles [with temptation]… well, the game is changed completely because God is present with us.” For Mark, who doesn’t ever mention food or water or political power, “the real, temptation,” writes Lewis, “is to believe that God is not present.”
Mark underlines the point that it is a baptized Jesus (and not an alone Jesus) who spends 40 days and 40 nights in misery. Mark adds some characters to the wilderness cast that others do not: the beasts of the wilderness and the angels, who - as the Greek translation explains - διηκόνουν (dee-ay-kon-oon) “minister to” Jesus in his suffering.
So what next? What comes after submission, reflection, repentance, and glory in our renewed trust of God’s power? What happens when the sun comes out and the bow is in the clouds? When the table is set for a feast to end the fast? When electricity flows again and water bubbles clean from the tap without a need for boiling? Well, Mark gifts us that part of the story as well, and it appears to be empowerment. Empowerment comes next. Because if God is to be trusted and if we can let ourselves believe that the big old paw on our heads does not belong to God, then submission and repentance have nothing to do with defeat or victimization. Quite the opposite. Just after Jesus’ time in the wilderness ended, Mark writes, “...Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”
When we who are powerless invite God’s power to work in us, we rise up, to love, to act, to help and to empower others. To do the work of Jesus himself. Most particularly, to strive for justice, to stand with and amplify the voices of those who live with a paw on their heads all day. Every day. Who are not only stilled by a passing storm and a pandemic that feels endless but isn’t. We are empowered to empower those who contend with oppressive, evil, destructive forces like racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, ableism, and poverty each and every day. We are empowered to heal our hurting planet and the climate change that threatens it. We are empowered to love our friends and family joyfully, fiercely and tenderly. We are empowered to stand up, try again and enjoy our lives for as long as we can. We are empowered to glorify the one whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine. Amen.